Inspired by politically-themed folk music and rhythm and blues, vocalist and guitarist Bonnie Raitt perfected her own style of crossover music for some twenty years before becoming a superstar. In fact, Raitt was dropped by her record company because of poor sales prior to releasing her 1989 breakthrough album, Nick of Time. Soon thereafter, Robert Hilburn commented in the Los Angeles Times, “At 44, an age when many poprockers are in the twilight of their careers, Bonnie Raitt exudes the energy and ambition of someone just entering her prime—which she may well be.” A performer who loves to tour, Raitt is also a tireless champion of social issues. Within the musical realm, this includes encouraging women to play the guitar and helping aging, financially-distressed blues musicians.
Raitt’s husky vocals and slide guitar playing are the core of a musical style that defies categorization. As she explained in Guitar Player, “I’m certainly bluesbased, but I’ve never felt that I was totally a blues artist. I’ve been doing the same mixture of rock and roll songs, ballads by contemporary songwriters, [and] off-the-wall jazz songs.” Raitt is famous for playing bottleneck slide guitar, a technique she taught herself. And while Raitt is modest about her playing abilities—she demurred in Guitar Player, “I play the same Muddy Waters lick over and over”—she placed first in the magazine’s readers poll for four consecutive years. For many years, Raitt specialized in playing and singing other people’s songs, performing only a few of her own. But the overwhelmingly positive response to Raitt’s own songs on Nick of Time has given her a new confidence and interest in songwriting.
Raised a Quaker, Raitt grew up in New York and Los Angeles. She began playing guitar at age nine and learned to play, in part, by copying her favorite blues recordings. Another important musical influence was, as Raitt described it in the Los Angeles Times, “this sort of progressive Quaker camp in the early ’60s that had a lot of counselors from the East Coast colleges where a lot of interest in folk music and civil rights and the peace movement was mushrooming…. So that kind of tied music and politics together for me.” The experience led Raitt down a far different musical path from that of her father, John Raitt, a musical theater star who had leading roles in the first Broadway productions of Carousel and The Pajama Game during the 1940s and 1950s. Father and daughter have widely different professional interests but have great respect for each other’s talents and a mutual understanding of the desire to perform. Raitt said to her father in a New York Times interview titled “Like Father, Unlike Daughter,” “I think we have the same dedication. I don’t want to get another job and neither do you. We’ll do anything to keep this
Born Bonnie Lynn Raitt, November 8, 1949 in Burbank, CA; daughter of John (a musical theater actor) and Marjorie (Haydock) Raitt; Education: Radcliffe College, Cambridge, MA; married Michael O’Keefe (actor) in April 1991.
Dropped out of college to pursue a musical career; began by performing in Boston clubs; signed with manager Dick Waterman who introduced her to legendary blues musicians; signed a recording contract with Warner Bros. and released debut album Bonnie Raitt, 1971; earned first gold album with Sweet Forgiveness, 1977; was dropped by Warner Bros. during work on her ninth album, which the company eventually released as Nine Lives; with a new manager and record contract with Capitol, Raitt produced Nick of Time with Don Was, 1989; released first live album, Road Tested, 1995.
Awards: Album of the year, best female rock vocal, best female pop vocal, best traditional blues recording (with John Lee Hooker), 1990; Grammy Awards, best female pop vocal, best rock performance by duo or group, 1992; Grammy Award, best pop album, 1994.
Addresses: Record company —Capitol Records, 1750 N. Vine St., Hollywood, CA, 90028, (213) 871-5197, fax (213) 871-5836; Office— P.O. Box 626, Los Angeles, CA 90078-0626.
gig.” The two have performed together on “An Evening at the Pops,” a 1992 concert broadcast on public television.
In 1967, Raitt began attending Boston’s Radcliffe College but she soon found a greater interest in the local music scene. She met Dick Waterman, a manager who introduced her to blues greats John Hurt, Fred McDowell, and Sippie Wallace. Waterman eventually became Raitt’s manager. Within a couple of years, Raitt dropped out of college to perform in folk and blues clubs. While other artists speak of the inspiration they have found in the recordings of blues musicians, Raitt met and performed with her idols, a practice she has continued throughout her career. In 1971, Raitt signed with Warner Bros. Records and released her debut album, Bonnie Raitt It was not until 1974 that Raitt began playing lead guitar, beginning with the album Streetlights, and touring with her own band. The next year, Raitt bought a home in Los Angeles.
Raitt produced five albums from 1971-75, containing mostly covers of blues, folk, and pop songs. Tracks included several Sippie Wallace tunes (“You Got to Know How,” “Mighty Tight Woman,” and “Woman be Wise”) as well as songs by Joni Mitchell, John Prine, Jackson Brown, and Randy Newman. In 1977, Raitt’s LP Sweet Forgiveness turned into her first gold album and produced a hit cover of Del Shannon’s “Runaway.” Raitt’s interest in linking music and social causes was evident in her 1979 participation as a founding member of Musicians United for Safe Energy (M.U.S.E.). Joining M.U.S.E. co-founders John Hall, Jackson Browne, and Graham Nash, she performed in a series of five benefit concerts at Madison Square Garden, which were recorded and released as a three-album set.
The albums that followed, The Glow (1979) and Green Light (1982), did not perpetuate increased album sales for Raitt. She was working on an album tentatively titled Tongue and Groove for Warner Bros., only to be told that the record company refused to release it. While the material was eventually released as by Warner Bros, as Nine Livesin 1986, Raitt parted ways with the company in 1983, sought new management, and later signed a contract with Capitol Records. The upheaval in Raitt’s life was personal as well as professional. In 1987 she joined Alcoholics Anonymous, feeling that she had hit bottom physically and emotionally. Raitt looked back on the experience in a New York Times interview, noting, “I’m really grateful that I didn’t either kill myself or somebody else. I really used to think I needed to be messed up to sing the kind of music I sing…. I don’t regret all those years, but I was one of the lucky people that could say no to [alcohol] and not miss it that much.”
Working with producer Don Was, Raitt rebounded professionally when she recorded Nick of Time. The album surprised many with its hit songs “Thing Called Love,” “Nick of Time,” and “Have a Heart.” Raitt won four Grammys in 1990, three for Nick of Time, and one for best traditional blues recording, for her duet with John Lee Hooker, “In the Mood.” Nick of Time went on to sell more than four million copies and the album catapulted Raitt into super-stardom. By comparison, her previous albums had each sold in the ballpark of several hundred thousand copies. In 1991, Raitt recorded a follow up album with Don Was, Luck of the Draw, which included the hit singles “Something to Talk About,” “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” and “Not the Only One.”
The media attention generated by these two breakthrough albums gave Raitt new opportunities to promote political and social causes as well as to express her views on the music business. In 1991, Raitt co-founded the Rhythm and Blues Foundation, an organization devoted to assisting aging and often poor musicians. She frequently appears at political benefits, such as a 1998 fund-raiser for Democratic California senator Barbara Boxer. In the New York Times, Raitt commented on using fame to advance causes: “You just do what you can…. As long as I’ve got a mouth, somebody’s going to be hearing about it. I’m just glad I won those Grammys, so now I get on a better page when the newspapers cover these things.”
Raitt has also used the spotlight to remark on the youth-oriented and male-dominated music business. Speaking to the New York Times she said, “I thought that after I won those Grammys, people like Delbert McClinton and John Hiatt would then start having hit records…. I though maybe it would mean that age-ism wasn’t going to happen, but everything’s too bucks-driven.” Regarding her own experiences as a woman in the industry, she told Rolling Stone, “I’ve been lucky in that people haven’t judged me primarily by my appearance; they’ve judged me by how I sing and play. Women like Tracy Chapman and Chrissie Hynde and me—we’re all gonna be OK. But the Spice Girls probably won’t be able to do what they’re doing now when they’re 45.”
Raitt is working to encourage other women to play the guitar, which led to the Bonnie Raitt-signature Fender guitar. The only Fender instrument to honor a woman, it’s production resulted in a giveaway program and provided women with an instrument that features a slimmer neck— which is more suited to smaller hands—and a copy of a guitar that Raitt plays. Raitt was enthusiastic about the future of women guitarists in Guitar Player, saying, “I’m waiting for the next Stevie Ray Vaughan to be a woman…. We’re like a sneeze away from a great lead guitar player with that kind of attitude…. We just have to make sure [women] get the exposure they deserve.”
Her interest in such issues has not diminished Raitt’s devotion to performing or her desire to grow as an artist. In 1994, she again worked with Don Was, recording Longing in Their Hearts and the hit “Love Sneakin’ Up on You.” In 1995 Raitt issued the live, two-CD recording Road Tested, capturing her passion for performing on stage with excerpts from five concerts. This album ended Raitt’s string of collaborations with Was. Raitt’s 1998 release, Fundamental, was produced by Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake, who have worked with artists including Elvis Costello, Los Lobos, and Richard Thompson. The album was described by Neill Strauss in the New York Times as “11 stylistically diverse songs that value raw musical immediacy over pop polish. Throughout the album, Ms. Raitt… sings of the search for love and the struggle to keep love alive.”
Writing for Billboard, Melinda Newman observed that at the time of Fundamental’s release, Raitt had already enjoyed “household name” status for nearly ten years. With appearances on The Oprah Winfrey Show, The Tonight Show With Jay Leno, and The Late Show With David Letterman, in addition to being highlighted on VH-1, the album’s promotion showed that Raitt continued to keep a high profile. She was also scheduled to take part in several concerts in the 1998 Lilith Fair festival, which features an eclectic mix of female performers. Raitt expressed both appreciation for her good fortune and a yearning for the smaller, intimate performances of the past in Billboard, saying, “I’ve been playing these sheds because there’s 15,000 people a night who want to see [me] luckily, and that’s great for me. Except, I’m sure those longtime fans sure get tired of only getting to see me in a big place.” And she concluded that her time onstage was still her greatest thrill: “The time when you’re actually getting onstage and playing makes it all worth it. If you can have a life where you get to travel around and control when and where you work and have that much fun and make that many people happy’. I’m not complaining for one minute.”
Bonnie Raitt, Warner Bros., 1971.
Give It Up, Warner Bros., 1972.
Takin’ My Time, Warner Bros., 1973.
Streetlights, Warner Bros., 1974.
Home Plate, Warner Bros., 1975.
Sweet Forgiveness, Warner Bros., 1977.
The Glow, Warner Bros., 1979.
Green Light, Warner Bros., 1982.
Nine Lives, Warner Bros., 1986.
Nick Of Time, Capitol, 1989.
The Bonnie Raitt Collection, Warner Bros., 1990.
Luck Of The Draw, Capitol, 1991.
Longing In Their Hearts, Capitol, 1994.
Road Tested, Capitol, 1995.
Fundamental, Capitol, 1998.
Billboard, March 14, 1998, p. 12-14.
Guitar Player, August 1, 1994, p. 43-52.
Los Angeles Times, March 20, 1994, p. 66.
NewYork Times, February 2, 1994, p. C1; May6, 1998, p. E1.
Rolling Stone, November 13, 1997, p 157.
—Paula Pyzik Scott
"Raitt, Bonnie." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 22, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/raitt-bonnie-0
"Raitt, Bonnie." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved September 22, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/raitt-bonnie-0
Born: Burbank, California, 8 November 1949
Best-selling album since 1990: Luck of the Draw (1991)
Hit songs since 1990: "Something to Talk About," "I Can't Make You Love Me," "Love Sneakin' Up on You"
Performing a unique hybrid of blues, rock, and R&B, Bonnie Raitt earned critical praise beginning in the early 1970s, when her good taste, eclectic musical sensibility, and strong voice informed a series of highly personal recordings. One of the few women to excel at "bottleneck" guitar playing—in which the musician plays with a metal or glass device placed over a finger of the left hand—Raitt brought to her music a genuine respect for the traditions of the past, updating them with a sharp, sensuous modern edge. In 1989, after recording for nearly two decades, she finally gained mainstream recognition with Nick of Time, an album that spawned several hits and Grammy Awards. During the 1990s Raitt continued to refine her style, releasing hits that emphasized her strengths as a subtle balladeer. These successes notwithstanding, Raitt rarely diluted the tough power of her sound, thereby limiting her ongoing commercial presence as the 1990s progressed. A dedicated activist as well as musician, Raitt in the 1990s worked tirelessly to gain recognition and financial assistance for overlooked pioneers of R&B music.
Early Critical Acclaim
The daughter of singer John Raitt, famous for his performances in classic Broadway musicals such as Carousel (1945) and The Pajama Game (1954), Raitt learned guitar at the age of twelve, developing an early love for blues music. Entering Radcliffe College in 1967, Raitt began performing in coffeehouses and clubs, eventually working as an opening act for blues performer John Hammond. Manager Dick Waterman signed her in the late 1960s, arranging for her to appear on bills with his other clients, classic blues singers Howlin' Wolf, Sippie Wallace, and Mississippi Fred McDowell. Signing to Warner Bros. Records in 1971, Raitt released a series of albums that garnered critical acclaim but little popular acceptance. Give It Up (1972) is one of the most notable of Raitt's early works, enlivened by tough, assertive blues such as "Love Me Like a Man" and the tender ballad "Love Has No Pride." Throughout the 1970s, Raitt worked with a series of producers on albums that veered from tough R&B to sophisticated pop, all without commercial success—although a 1979 version of 1960s rock singer Del Shannon's song "Runaway" was a minor hit. Dropped by Warner Bros. in 1986, Raitt signed with Capitol Records and began working with Don Was, best known as part of the R&B group Was (Not Was) and as producer for the funky rock group the B-52s. Nick of Time (1989) was Raitt's breakthrough, an album on which her diverse musical impulses coalesced into a polished but gritty sound. Featuring the hit singles "Thing Called Love" and "Have a Heart," Nick of Time won a Grammy Award for Album of the Year.
Raitt's newfound commercial prominence expanded in the early 1990s, with her follow-up to Nick of Time, Luck of the Draw (1991), becoming her best-selling release to date. On the insistent, subtly rocking hit, "Something to Talk About," Raitt finds an ideal outlet for her frisky, likable persona; the song proved so popular that Hollywood producers borrowed its title for a 1995 movie. On the album's second big hit, "I Can't Make You Love Me," Raitt reveals her talents as a gentle ballad singer, building power in her performance through expert timing and vocal control. The song is one of the rare singles to appeal to fans of both hard rock and smooth, "adult contemporary" pop—a measure of Raitt's taste and sensitivity. Elsewhere on the album, Raitt duets with R&B-influenced rock performer Delbert McClinton on "Good Man, Good Woman," a funky track underscored by percolating guitar rhythms. Raitt also proves herself a songwriter of the highest rank, penning the tough, sexually themed "Tangled and Dark" as well as the moving ballad "All at Once," on which she alternates between somber and uplifting passages with consummate skill. The song also represents one of Raitt's most affecting, honest moments on record, her lyrics pointing to a new level of maturity: "Had a fight with my daughter / She flew off in a rage / The third time this week / Don't tell me it's the age." During this period of her career, Raitt found personal contentment, giving up drugs and alcohol and marrying actor Michael O'Keefe in 1991 (the couple divorced at the end of 1999).
After working with Was on Longing in Their Hearts (1994), an album similar in sound and style to its two predecessors, Raitt released a smoldering live set, Road Tested (1995), before switching to the production team of Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake for Fundamental (1998). Although commercially disappointing—none of its singles succeeded in charting—Fundamental stands as one of Raitt's most stimulating albums. Froom and Blake, known for their work with rock artists such as Elvis Costello and Suzanne Vega, provide Raitt with a full, dense sound and a gritty edge. The album's opener, "The Fundamental Things," is lean and streamlined, featuring relaxed, simmering horns that fall in line with the song's back-to-basics message: "Let's run naked through the city streets / we're all victims of captivity." "Round & Round" is a roots-oriented blues number, sporting rustic-sounding percussion and Raitt's fine bottleneck guitar work, while "Spit of Love," "I Need Love," and the shuffling "Meet Me Half Way" all rank as tough, uncompromising blues-inflected rock. Critics note that the album's most powerful moment, however, is the brooding "Lovers Will," a song penned by rock artist John Haitt, one of Raitt's favorite writers. Set against a simmering bed of organ, horns, and heavy drums, "Lovers Will" is a dark yet colorful tale of desire and abjection: "Who'll take the only hearts they got, and throw 'em into the fire / who'll risk their own self-respect in the name of desire . . . lovers will." Throughout the song Raitt uses her cool, biting vocals to balance intensity with resignation.
During the 1990s Raitt was heavily involved with the Rhythm & Blues Foundation, an organization that honors overlooked pioneers of R&B. Serving as board member and emceeing benefit events each year, Raitt has given awards to many of her artistic forebears, such as New Orleans–based vocalist Irma Thomas and Ruth Brown, one of the biggest R&B stars of the early 1950s. A member of the liberal Quaker religious tradition, Raitt in the 1990s also lent her support to environmental and antiwar causes. In 2002 she released Silver Lining, handling most of the production duties herself. Beginning with the loose, rocking R&B groove of "Fool's Game" and continuing through the pounding, raucous "Gnawin' on It," the album provides a well-rounded portrait of Raitt's many talents and interests, although it lacks Fundamental 's succinct power.
Bonnie Raitt's passion, commitment, and expansive talent have earned her a special place in American popular music. One of the few female slide guitar players, and an early proponent of eclecticism in rock, Raitt pursued her artistic interests for decades before capturing a mainstream audience in the early 1990s. By the beginning of the millennium, Raitt was producing her own albums and overseeing her career with undiminished vigor.
Bonnie Raitt (Warner Bros., 1971); Give It Up (Warner Bros., 1972); The Glow (Warner Bros., 1979); Nick of Time (Capitol, 1989); Luck of the Draw (Capitol, 1991); Longing in Their Hearts (Capitol, 1994); Road Tested (Capitol, 1995); Fundamental (Capitol, 1998); Silver Lining (Capitol, 2002).
"Raitt, Bonnie." Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Popular Musicians Since 1990. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 22, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/raitt-bonnie
"Raitt, Bonnie." Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Popular Musicians Since 1990. . Retrieved September 22, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/raitt-bonnie
Singer, songwriter, guitarist
Bonnie Raitt first garnered acclaim and attention with her self-titled debut album in 1971. Performing in the rock-blues traditions, many felt she would meet with the same level of success that pop-country phenomenon Linda Ronstadt achieved during the 1970s. But despite Raitt’s maintaining a faithful following of fans, she did not obtain truly widespread popularity until the release of her tenth album, Nick of Time. Both the title track and the single “Thing Called Love” scored hits for her.
Raitt was born on November 8, 1949, to musical parents. Her father, John Raitt, was a Broadway singing star famed for performing the male lead in “Carousel,” and her mother, Marjorie, was a talented pianist. Raitt taught herself to play guitar when she was only nine years old; she confided to Kim Hubbard in People that her choice of instrument was influenced by her belief that “I’d never be as good on piano as my mother.” As Raitt grew older, supported by her politically active, Quaker parents, she became interested in protest music. She played political songs in parks and “thought [folk and protest singer] Joan Baez was just about God,” she told Hubbard.
Her interest in both politics and music continued when she matriculated at Radcliffe College. In addition to protesting the Vietnam War, Raitt studied African culture with the goal of becoming a social worker in Tanzania. But she also played in coffeehouses near Radcliffe, and became acquainted with many well-known blues artists, including Junior Wells. As Raitt said to Hubbard, she was “hangin’ out with 70-year-old blues guys who drank at 10 in the morning. My parents were a little concerned.”
Eventually Raitt’s love for music proved stronger than her will to work in Africa, and she dropped out of Radcliffe without graduating. Not long afterwards, she signed with Warner Brothers Records. Her first album, Bonnie Raitt, was primarily composed of traditional blues standards, and was well received, bringing her favorable comparisons with early 1970s peers like Ronstadt and Maria Muldaur. Raitt followed with other successes, 1972’s Give It Up and 1973’s Takin’ My Time, but afterwards, though she remained at least somewhat popular with folk and blues fans, she put out six albums that Hubbard avowed “left critics lukewarm.” Even so, many of the negative reviews blamed Raitt’s material and the records’ production rather than the singer’s talent. While complaining that on an entire side of her 1986 album Nine Lives “the mix is off,” James Hunter in Rolling Stone praised the “powerfully lucid traces of [rhythm and blues] in her voice” and admitted that Raitt’s singing “at its best … [blows] away both her influences and her competition.” In the
Born November 8, 1949; daughter of John (a Broadway singer) and Marjorie Haydock (a pianist) Raitt Education: Attended Radcliffe College.
Vocalist, guitarist; performed in small clubs beginning 1967, recording artist and concert performer, 1971—.
Awards: Four Grammys for Album of the Year, Best Pop Female Performance, Best Rock Female Performance, and Best Traditional Blues Recording (with John Lee Hooker), 1990, all for Nick of Time.
Addresses: 7323 Woodrow Wilson Drive, Los Angeles, Calif. 90046.
same vein, a People reviewer groused about Nine Lives’ “numbing similarity of tempo across most of the LP’s 10 tracks,” while affirming that “Raitt is still a vibrant, aggressive singer.”
Apparently the decline of Raitt’s albums in critical favor coincided with struggle in her personal life. After devoting herself during the late 1970s to playing for causes such as the anti-nuclear movement, she found herself “depressed by how conservative [the United States] had become,” according to Ron Givens in Newsweek. In addition, she ended a longtime love relationship, drank heavily, and put on weight. Raitt explained to Hubbard: “I wasn’t kicking and screaming into dementia, but I did have a complete emotional, physical and spiritual breakdown.”
But in 1987 Raitt agreed to work on a project with pop superstar Prince, one that included making a video. She was ashamed of her weight, and this inspired her to get her life into better order. “It’s one thing to go onstage if you’re a little chunky,” Raitt told Hubbard, “it’s another to make a video with a guy who’s known for looking foxy. I decided to lose weight, which you can’t do if you’re drinking all the time.” Though the project with Prince was never completed, Raitt continued with her good intentions, joining Alcoholics Anonymous. “I still stay up and jam,” she explained to Givens. “It’s just that I can remember everything I did the next day and I don’t have to feel sick.”
Paralleling Raitt’s personal achievements, her 1989 effort Nick of Time not only won back critical favor for her but brought her greater popularity than she had ever experienced before. When the word “comeback” came up, she quipped to Givens: “I never had a hit record, so how can I come back?” But now she has several, including the album’s title track, a song about coping with the aging process. A People reviewer lauded the entire disc, saying that “throughout, the sound is intimate, clear, honest.” Though thrilled with her newfound success, Raitt is more pleased with her potential for longevity. “I think my fans will follow me into our combined old age,” she told Hubbard. “Real musicians and real fans stay together for a long, long time.”
Bonnie Raitt, Warner Bros., 1971.
Give It Up, Warner Bros., 1972.
Takin’ My Time, Warner Bros., 1973.
Street Lights, Warner Bros., 1974.
Home Plate, Warner Bros., 1975.
Sweet Forgiveness, Warner Bros., 1977.
The Glow, Warner Bros., 1979.
Green Light, Warner Bros., 1982.
Nine Lives (includes “No Way to Treat a Lady,” “Freezin’,” “Crime of Passion,” and “Angel”), Warner Bros., 1986.
Nick of Time (includes “Thing Called Love” and “Nick of Time”), Capitol, 1989.
Newsweek, March 13, 1989.
People, September 22, 1986, April 4, 1989, April 24, 1989.
Rolling Stone, November 20, 1986, April 20, 1989.
"Raitt, Bonnie." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 22, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/raitt-bonnie
"Raitt, Bonnie." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved September 22, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/raitt-bonnie